Psychologists continue to grapple over whether standing like Superman changes the mind—and the body
Every year, people at hundreds of schools and workplaces around the world are taught how to stand like Superman. The rationale behind this is that the way one holds one’s body has an impact on how they feel and the thoughts they have—or so some experts insist. It’s part of the training provided by a London-based firm called Laughology, which provides workshops and consulting in schools and businesses with the goal of boosting confidence, resilience, and coping skills.
“The way you stand has an impact on the way you think and therefore you can help yourself to feel better,” says Stephanie Davies, CEO of Laughology. Schools that adopt Laughology’s happy-centered schools program report higher SAT scores and lower pre-exam stress levels among students, says Davies, who is a qualified cognitive behavioral therapy consultant.
Power posing was popularized in a 2012 TED Talk by Harvard University social psychologist Amy Cuddy. The video remains the second most-watched TED Talk of all time, with almost 50 million views to date. Nowadays, everyone, from politicians to speakers at public events, is using power posing.
One reason why power poses have become so popular might be that people find it attractive that small changes in behavior can lead to large differences in effects. “With power posing, you can do essentially nothing and then break through all kinds of barriers,” says Moin Syed, a cultural psychologist at the University of Minnesota. “This can be seen with other small-scale interventions, like stereotype threat, mindset, grit, and lean in. None of these require anyone to seriously consider the power structures that produce and reproduce inequities.”
But the effects of power posing have come under a feverish amount of scrutiny in the last few years. The majority has been directed toward a 2010 study looking into the hormonal effects of power poses that Cuddy co-authored with psychologist Dana Carney of the University of California, Berkeley.
In 2016, Carney herself came forward and said she no longer believes the effects of power posing are real. Attempts to contact Cuddy for this article were unsuccessful.
Since her paper came out, Cuddy has stated publicly that some of the effects of expansive bodily postures—“the power posing effect”—has been replicated successfully several times by multiple labs. In a paper published earlier this year, Cuddy argued that the evidence for feeling powerful as a result of expansive postures is solid. Several psychologists Medium reached out to agreed. What’s much less robust, Cuddy herself noted in the new study, is the evidence that expansive postures can affect people’s hormone levels—the topic of her 2010 paper.
Last year, TED added a note under Cuddy’s talk pointing viewers to the “ongoing debate among social scientists about robustness and reproducibility” of the claims made. The fallout from the power-pose skepticism has extended far beyond TED, however, prompting researchers to take a second look at how science is done in the first place. The Loss of Confidence Project, for instance, aims to offer researchers an outlet for openly and systematically admitting when they’ve ceased believing in the findings of their previous research.
This is notable because informal refutations of previous findings can happen quietly—and may never reach the general public or those who have made business decisions based on the research. “It is incredibly difficult to change people’s mind once they think something they like is supported by science,” says Syed. “I think the attitude is often that if it ‘makes sense for me’ that is all people need to keep on believing.”
Malte Elson, a behavioral psychologist at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, says it is difficult enough to communicate refutations within the scientific community, let alone the general public. “Instead of communicating definitive ‘refutations,’ it would be much better if researchers communicated appropriate scientific uncertainty in the first place,” he says.
Some researchers argue that power-posing research was not framed in the appropriate way to begin with. “In my humble opinion, Cuddy should have just said ‘Interesting, let’s see what’s going on here!’ instead of making things overly personal by casting it in terms of bullying (regardless of how she felt she was treated),” says Jelte Wicherts, a methodologist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.
Wicherts thinks that scientists should never identify themselves with a specific effect, as they should be willing to change their mind on whether it exists if the data dictates it. “This is the core scientific norm of independence,” he says. “As science progresses, some earlier claims no longer hold, and we should always be willing to convey this adagium of ‘more research is needed’ to the public.”
Several psychologists interviewed said they think there is unlikely to be any physiological effects of power posing. “Subsequent large sample and pre-registered replications have found no evidence for physiological effects,” Syed says. “So I can say with confidence that there is no evidence for the effect.”
For Elson, it is unlikely that a posture change lasting a minute or two can lead to any relevant physiological changes. Whether it is a problem to teach those poses to kids depends on how it’s framed, he says. “If it is introduced merely as a fun activity for children to ‘play’ superheroes, I don’t see any harm,” Elson adds. “If it is conveyed as an actual intervention to be used instead of other, actually effective interventions, then that would be problematic.”
Davies acknowledges that there has been conflicting research on power posing, especially in the area of hormonal changes as a result of power posing. Although it’s difficult to monitor whether changes occur at the physiological level, Davies says, we can monitor how people feel, which is the most important part. “If you believe it, you’re going to feel better about it,” she says. “Any technique that makes you feel better, for me, is a good technique.”
“I do not expect the costs of using power posing to be particularly high and I doubt whether there are major negative side effects to using it,” adds Wicherts. “Although it might be wiser to use one’s energy using more evidence-based approaches to enhancing performance.”
Will Gervais, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky, says the power-posing saga is overblown from a scientific perspective. For Gervais, it is far more worrying to see lines of research that may be built on top of hundreds of published studies based on “noise and statistical artifacts.” As an example, he cites the debunked ego depletion theory—which suggests that we have a limited supply of willpower and that using it excessively wears you out—that came into scrutiny in the last couple of years.
Ego depletion and power posing aren’t alone, however. Many high-profile psychology findings have recently come into question after failing to hold up to retesting from other researchers. But that has resulted in researchers in the discipline becoming better at self-correction in light of improving methodological standards, says Gervais, who has previously said that his “methodological awakening” started around 2012. “I think it’s important for the public to realize that criticism and revisiting previous research is a normal and healthy part of science,” he says.
“I don’t think self-correction will ever be painless,” says Marcus Munafò, a biological psychologist at the University of Bristol. The reason, he says, is because of the way academia is structured where entire careers are built on a single paper or a handful of studies, which makes it difficult to admit if those don’t withstand the test of time. “We need to develop a culture where we’re more open to the possibility of being wrong, don’t feel so threatened by that,” he says. “We shouldn’t take a failure to replicate personally—it’s just a natural part of science.”
The power-posing conundrum has some important lessons. For the consumers of science, it is important to be cautious when reading the news and know that science is a gradual and incremental process that may end up debunking or correcting itself in time. But this doesn’t mean it then becomes uninteresting.
Also, just because one particular study is underpowered or weak, it can be naïve to tar the whole theory or field with the same brush. As many psychologists said, there is considerable evidence for feeling powerful as a result of expansive postures, even though it is far less interesting than hormonal effects.
“Apart from the unnecessary focus on personal things like charges of bullying or claims with respect to the integrity of certain researchers, I think the debate on power posing represents a powerful example of scientific self-correction,” Wilcherts adds. “It involves open discussions on what the current data do or do not mean.”
By: Dalmeet Singh Chawla, Science Journalist
Illustration: Rebecca Clarke
A Clinical Psychologist Dallas, Texas. He graduated with honors in 1989 and has more than 29 years of diverse experiences. Also a family therapist and group counselor in Dallas TX.